We are delighted to have guest post written by Amy Moore in our monthly series Childhood, Children, and Youth. Amy writes “I graduated in 2011 from BYU with a bachelor’s degree in History Teaching. Church history has always interested me, partly because I grew up near Kirtland, OH and was inspired by the lives and legacy of the early Saints.”
In the May 1929 issue of the Young Woman’s Journal (YWJ), Ruth May Fox wrote of an experiment. After hearing that the life of a rose could be extended by applying heat, Fox took a “half-blown” rose she had received as a gift and held it to her heated stove. The rose bloomed quickly and its color remained, but to her dismay, the rose lost its freshness and its life. By forcing the rose to bloom prematurely, Fox destroyed a fundamental element of the flower’s beauty. As president of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA), the young women’s auxiliary of the LDS Church, Ruth May Fox extended the lesson of her rose to adolescent girls: “Oh, I thought, how like the girl who has failed to appreciate and preserve her innocent beauty, but, longing to be grown up, has blossomed before her time.” Fox called her experiment “The Flapper Rose.”[i]
In The Damned and the Beautiful Paula Fass explains that in the 1920s, young, unmarried people looked increasingly to their peers as they developed new social mores that starkly contrasted with their parents’ Victorian social and sexual values. The sexual revolution of the 1920s posed a great concern for LDS Church leaders, who advocated social progress and women’s rights but also placed chastity and strong families among the highest values. Mormon leaders worried about behaviors and trends such as immodest dress, smoking, jazz dancing, petting, and other sexual practices—embodied by the image of the flapper—that seemed to be pervading an increasingly peer-oriented youth culture. Through stories like Fox’s “Flapper Rose,” the YWJ—a monthly periodical published by the LDS Church for its young women members—shows that Mormon leaders believed that peer groups and emerging youth behaviors threatened both church standards and young women’s well-being. And leaders clearly hoped that they could use the journal to counter the sexual revolution’s effects on its young women.
Scholars have noted that the YWJ is an important source for understanding Mormon women’s perspectives about and participation in social change, and that LDS women writers especially hoped to use the journal to educate and persuade their younger counterparts about important issues. In “Preaching the Gospel of Church and Sex: Mormon Women’s Fiction in the Young Woman’s Journal: 1889-1910,” Rebecca de Schweinitz examines how LDS women’s fiction addressed LDS women’s primary concerns, such as women’s rights, polygamy, and Mormon doctrine to young women growing up in the church. She notes how those messages changed over time to reflect changes both in the nation and within the faith. Indeed, my research on the journal in the 1920s suggests that after women won nationwide suffrage the issues that concerned the journal’s writers were different—the fiction, poetry, and messages that emerged from the YWJ’s pages no longer defended polygamy or advocated progressive stances on women’s liberties—especially as those “liberties” turned away from political and education rights and toward sexual freedom.
As the twenties’ sexual revolution progressed, talk about sex became increasingly public. Social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg claims that as a result of this openness, American girls became increasingly focused on their bodies and tried to change them to fit popular image.[ii] LDS young women were no exception to the national trend—they, too, focused on fads, fashions, and the superficial aspects of their appearances to a degree that alarmed church leaders, who encouraged girls to pay more attention to developing worthwhile character traits. In a 1920 YWJ article, Mabel Frazer accuses the fashion industry of “effac[ing] the art of the Almighty” for commercial gain. “It is too bad,” she muses, “that lovely women are at the mercy of the tyrant, fashion, making themselves one season into barrels, the next into broomsticks or boxes, when if they only had the power to recognize their own beautiful lines they might be graceful . . . .”[iii] Frazer’s words “broomsticks” and “boxes” call to mind flappers’ straight, form-hiding clothes—characteristics that Frazer condemned as detracting from the natural grace and beauty that God gave to women.
Another trend that concerned LDS leaders was jazz dancing, associated as it was with sensuous moves.[iv] In 1920, the LDS Church’s Social Advisory Committee, headed by Arthur L. Beeley, published a study on sexual expression in dancing. Although the committee approved of dancing’s aesthetic elements—grace and refinement, for example—it cautioned that some types of dancing evoked the wrong kinds of emotions among its participants: “when the emotional appeal becomes so intense as to stimulate those emotions which are fundamentally related to the sex instinct, social dancing is no longer wholesome.”[v] The Social Advisory Committee urged local church leaders to remove as much as possible any elements of dancing that could over-stimulate youths’ emotions. In spite of dancing’s potential for developing refinement in young men and women, the YWJ called it “the most dangerous and most easily-perverted social pastime.”[vi]
Church leaders were clearly concerned by the trend away from supervised heterosocial activities for young people. The YWJ sought to educate young women about the risks involved in various popular pastimes and offered positive solutions. The journal suggested that youth modify their leisure pursuits with the opposite sex—for example, they might invite a congenial adult to chaperone a lengthy car trip.[vii] The YWJ repeatedly stressed the need for caution and wisdom as young people planned their recreation.
One dangerous youth activity identified by journal writers was smoking. Smoking’s expanding popularity among youth nationwide alarmed Mormon leaders. In 1921, the YWJ published a list of statistics illustrating smoking’s explosive growth, beginning with the increase of cigarettes smoked annually from three billion to forty-six billion in twelve years.[viii] In the same issue, the YWJ announced a church-wide anti-tobacco campaign and outlined a YLMIA program that offered several reasons why young women should oppose the sale and use of tobacco, including the physical, spiritual, and familial consequences of smoking. The article urged young women to discourage young men from smoking and tell them “I object to the uncleanliness of smoking,” or insist that “the odor of tobacco is offensive.” Young women were also encouraged to tell young men that smoking impaired their intellectual powers and physical prowess in sports.[ix] The YWJ warned young women that smoking injured one’s mind, body, and morals and suggested that smoking contributed to delinquency.[x]
Of all the 1920s’ emerging youth behaviors, perhaps the most alarming to LDS leaders was the increasing degree of sexual experimentation in dating. (Dating itself was a new trend—in the 1920s it began to replace courtship, which had been more formalized, ritualized, and supervised.) Evidence from the YWJ suggests that the Church hoped to inform young women’s goals for dating, encouraging them to avoid the trend toward experimentation in dating and instead focus on pursuing courtship experiences that would lead to marriage within the faith.[xi] The YWJ clarified the Church’s stance on the appropriate boundaries of sexual expression, using often-blunt dialogue to explain the risks of liberal sexual practices, such as petting. LDS church leaders warned against petting because of its tendency to lead to sex and because of its adverse impact on both the current and future relationships of both parties involved. In petting, one article explained, “lurks a menace to both happy courtship and happy marriage . . . . Taking liberties [such as caressing girls] would not only perhaps ruin the future of the girl who allowed them, but it would spoil [a young man’s] own future by giving him a low idea of women.”[xii] Leaders claimed that petting during courtship led to dissatisfaction in marriage—it invariably diminished one’s ability to appreciate beauty and purity. YWJ authors repeatedly urged young women to guard against the practice: “how necessary it is for girls to guard themselves and help to guide their boy friends past the dangers which could so easily wreck their entire lives.” [xiii]
The YWJ also warned against premarital sex, frequently publishing inspirational reminders for readers, such as “Cherish chastity. ‘We stand for a pure life through clean thought and action.’”[xiv] YWJ editors made a point to portray both the spiritual and social consequences of sex outside of marriage, and articles by General Authorities of the Church couched warning about sexual transgression in terms of distinct Mormon doctrines. Rudger Clawson, for example, reminded youth that sexual misconduct would disqualify them from opportunities like eternal marriage, for such an ordinance “can be obtained simply and only by faithfulness, by devotion to the cause of God. Strict obedience to the Lord’s commandments will entitle one to the blessing.”[xv]
While clearly wary about the lack of propriety of certain heterosocial activities, the YWJ encouraged activities that offered opportunities for young men and young women to meet each other. The Social Advisory Committee’s report recommended that the Church provide recreation that would “cultivate sociability and acquaintanceship” and “develop desirable social qualities.”[xvi] The YWJ reported that by appropriately mingling with the opposite sex in any stage of life, one could improve his or her manners. A boy who keeps company with “nice, refined girls” or has a particular, favorite girl whose opinion he values will be less likely to develop bad habits. Likewise, having a certain boy to impress “stirs [a young woman] to be a nice, refined, lady-like girl.”[xvii] LDS church leaders valued such attributes enough to encourage peer activities in spite of the perceived risks. Clearly the YWJ (and the Church) wanted young men and women to associate with each other both so that they would develop deep and lasting, and appropriate, relationships that would lead to courtship and marriage, but also because such activities would help them, as individuals, develop the qualities and behaviors associated with moral and respectable character.
As the sexual revolution of the 1920s emerged, LDS Church leaders recognized changing trends in youths’ social practices. Concerned by the potential for harmful consequences, they sought not to stop change, but to harness it by educating young women about social and moral dangers. Through the YWJ, leaders tried to diminish the negative influences of peer groups and the sexual revolution while promoting close-knit peer groups that shared and practiced common standards. Mormon leaders especially encouraged youth to build relationships that would eventually lead to strong family relationships. LDS church leaders recognized youths’ susceptibility to outside influences. But they also acknowledged youths’ power to influence others and encouraged them to exemplify high moral standards in spite of popular trends. “By the splendor of your lives,” wrote Emma Goddard in the Young Woman’s Journal, “make the world acknowledge there is something great and wonderful in the principles you stand for.”[xviii]
[i] Ruth May Fox, “The Flapper Rose,” Young Woman’s Journal 40 (May 1929): 327.
[ii] Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New Yourk: Random House, 1997), xxix.
[iii]Young Woman’s Journal 31, no.1 (January 1920): 37.
[iv] Fass, 302.
[v] Arthur L. Beeley, “A Statistical Study of Social Dancing,” Young Woman’s Journal 31, no. 3 (March 1920): 165.
[vii] “The Girl of Today in Her Leisure Time,” Young Woman’s Journal 38, no. 12 (December 1927): 815; “The Girl of Today in Her Leisure Time,” Young Woman’s Journal 39, no. 1 (January 1928): 67-8.
[viii] Young Woman’s Journal 32, no. 1 (January 1921): ix.
[ix] “We Stand for the Non-Use and Non-Sale of Tobacco,” Young Woman’s Journal 32, no. 1 (January 1921): 28-9.
[x] Young Woman’s Journal 34, no. 2 (February 1923): 101.
[xi] Fass claims that while youths’ sexual behavior became more liberal in the 1920s, the practice of engaging in premarital sexual relations still reflected traditional social standards because its primary objectives included finding a suitable marriage partner (Fass, 262). Like Fass, Beth Bailey in From Front Porch to Back Seat places the inception of dating to the twenties. She attributes the transformation of the courtship process to economic factors born of the unique combination of opportunities—and lack thereof—among America’s lower and middle classes (Bailey, 17-19) Bailey also disagrees with Fass regarding the purpose of dating—arguing that dating was not marriage-oriented (Bailey, 25). While Bailey argues that the 1920s’ courtship protocol shifted away from its traditional marriage orientation, the YWJ shows that this is not true among LDS young women; Mormon girls’ experiences more closely followed Fass’ model of courtship’s ultimate aim—marriage.
[xii] “Courtship,” 323.
[xiv] Young Woman’s Journal 34, no. 2 (February 1923): 103.
[xv] Rudger Clawson, “Marriage an Investment,” Young Woman’s Journal 30, no. 6 (June 1920)
[xvi] Beeley, 165.
[xvii] Young Woman’s Journal 40, no. 3 (March 1929): 222.
[xviii] Emma Goddard, “The Y.L.M.I.A. Under President Martha H. Tingey,” Young Woman’s Journal 36, no. 6 (June 1925): 335.